Mizrahim Aren’t Equal Partners in Israel’s Power Structure

Don’t believe the politicians - Moroccan Jews’ Mimouna festival isn’t an Israeli holiday. Jews with North African and Middle Eastern roots still suffer.

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Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at a Mimuna celebration, April 14, 2012.
Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at a Mimouna celebration, April 14, 2012.Credit: GPO

“I am proud to celebrate a holiday that started with one ethnic group and turned into the most Israeli holiday — on which every door is open without regard to differences in religion or gender. Mimouna replaces prejudices with joint customs.” This is what Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, a former Knesset speaker, said before he visited a Mimouna celebration — the Moroccan Jews' post-Passover festival.

Rivlin isn’t the only politician, and certainly not the most cynical, to take part in the annual Mimouna dance, where politicians don tarbooshes and caftans while kneading dough or taking a bite into a traditional Moroccan mufleta pastry.

Israel has celebrated political Mimounas since right-wing politicians wised up to the electoral strength of Mizrahi voters — Jews with roots in North Africa and the Middle East. These politicians want to reap the disaffection with the arrogant Ashkenazi left; there are still intolerable social gaps.

The Central Bureau of Statistics’ surveys on wages, collected by Shlomo Svirsky of the nonpartisan Adva Center policy institute, show that from 2002 to 2012 the wages of Mizrahim in Israel still lagged the wages of Asheknazim — Jews with roots in Europe. Economist Momi Dahan analyzed household income between 1979 and 2011 and found that despite the improvement, in 2011 the net income of a household where the father or his father was born in Asia or Africa was still 74 percent of the income of a household where the father had roots in Europe or America.

Data from the education system also reflect the Mizrahim’s poor showing; for example, the percentage of Mizrahim qualifying for a full matriculation certificate — some 20 percent lower in Israel’s “development towns” than in better-off communities. There is also the participation rate in academia, which in 2007 was below 9 percent, according to Israel Blachman of Tel Aviv University.

Mizrahim are still a minority at the top levels of the legal, economic and business worlds, and even in politics. Of course, there are directors, judges and professors of Mizrahi origin, but their low representation compared to their Ashkenazi colleagues makes clear they’re the exception, not the rule. And yes, the army, a celebrated channel for social mobility, has certainly improved the Mizrahim’s situation. But there have been only four Mizrahi chiefs of staff out of 20.

These data are backed by hidden mechanisms of selection such as the differences in access to quality education, as well the geographic and cultural distance from the people who hold the most influence in society. Worst of all is many Mizrahim’s poor self-image, the depressing result of the arrogance of the old elite. All this shows that Mimouna isn’t an Israeli holiday at all, just as Mizrahim aren’t equal shareholders in Israel’s mechanisms of power — certainly not in proportion to their share of the population.

It’s no surprise that young people of Mizrahi origin, whose starting point today is better than that of their immigrant parents or grandparents, are disgusted by the Mimouna festival. They don’t believe this relic helps them advance.

To narrow the socioeconomic gaps, we need solutions such as progressive investment in education, even affirmative action. But the need for activism not only falls on the state, it falls on the Mizrahim themselves. They have been the victims of injustice, redemption from which depends on them. The first stage can be returning Mimouna to them and closing the door to the politicians.

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